Arsene picked a strong line-up that was virtually his first choice eleven. Giroud came in for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby for Coquelin, and Mannone for Szczesny. The back four remained unchanged, Arteta, Cazorla and Podolski held their places, while Gervinho moved to the right flank.
This showed respect to the hosts but disappointed some fans including this blogger. With the benefit of hindsight, given the challenging nature of this game, it’s difficult to say the decision wasn’t justified, but questions can be asked about the manager’s faith in the other players. That said, it would not be wise to move from questions to judgements this early in the season.
I’d expected an open game and at least three goals. That came true as early as the 18th minute. At that stage many would have expected more goals in this game but the patterns of play changed dramatically over time.
Arsenal started the game with confidence but the hosts weren’t overawed by the occasion either. Both sides were cautiously trading punches early on when Vermaelen’s overenthusiastic attempt to win a duel gifted Montpellier a spot kick. Some people probably felt it was harsh on the Belgian, we do see moments in the Premier League where such decisions go in favour of the defender, but I thought the officials got it right. Belhanda dinked it home with nonchalance.
Arsenal were rattled for a while but came back with a stunning team goal.
As expected there were gaps in the Montpellier defence that Arsenal found through a patient build-up followed by a quick forward burst involving Diaby, Cazorla, Giroud, and Podolski in various capacities.
Just as at the weekend, one goal was followed by another within a couple of minutes. Gervinho showed initiative in cutting in from the right. His pass to Giroud wasn’t perfect but the defender’s touch set it up perfectly for Jenkinson to cross from the right. The Ivorian had continued his run and was at hand to tap in from close range.
Both teams had other half chances in the first period and the game was pretty even although Arsenal did have greater possession. According to UEFA stats, at half time Arsenal had 58 percent possession compared to 42 percent for Girard’s side. The Gunners hit the target with 4 of their 5 attempts while Montpellier did so with 4 of their 6. The hosts won 3 corners to Arsenal’s 4. In short, Wenger’s side (or should it be Bould’s in this case) were just shading it, which was well reflected in the score line.
Perhaps it was that feeling of being comfortable in the lead, or maybe it was Girard’s team talk at half-time, but something seemed to change at the start of the second period. The Gunners came out in a bit of a daze and took a while to get into the game. This encouraged the hosts to push forward and got the crowd going.
Before we knew it, there was this rhythm to the game. Montpellier would attack, Arsenal would defend/clear the ball, the hosts would come back at the Gunners, who’d again get bodies behind. You don’t often see Arsenal defend this deep and narrow for the length of an entire half. A less partisan observer might say Arsenal parked the bus.
Girard’s team had some noteworthy moments early in the second half but they couldn’t find the target. Bocaly blazed over when a cross found him unmarked at the back post. Mounier rushed his shot when a long ball over the top found his run and put him clear on goal in the 53rd minute. Cabella hit the bar with a delightful chip that left Mannone grasping at thin air a couple of minutes later.
In fairness, Arsenal did well to absorb that pressure and remained compact for most of remaining period. This limited the quality of chances that Montpellier could create even though they looked more and more dominant. Wave after wave of Montpellier forays were thwarted by a disciplined, focussed, and hard working defence aided by a bit of luck or rush of blood from the opponents.
Every once in a while the Gunners would hold on to the ball for a bit but any attempts to break forward usually resulted in a loss of possession and more pressure from the home side. Montpellier were growing in confidence and went really tight on the Arsenal attackers denying them any space to turn, often intercepting passes played forward or tackling the player in possession. In contrast, Arsenal were defending passively via a shape (something I appreciate but not as a strategy for the whole half) and the hosts were able to pop up in various parts of the pitch, often between the lines, undetected.
The visitors tired visibly as the game went on. They weren’t as diligent at tracking the runs as they earlier were. The midfield struggled to join the attack when the ball did go forward. Gaps began emerging at the back and Girard’s side had a couple of moments where they could have equalized.
In the 80th minute, substitute Ait-Fana’s run into the box wasn’t tracked by Diaby. This sucked Vermaelen wide and opened some space in front of goal. The square ball found its way to Belhanda who was left completely unmarked deep inside the Arsenal box after Mertesacker’s desperate lunge missed the ball. Fortunately for the Gunners, the Moroccan could only fire straight at Mannone who did well to cling on to the fiercely struck shot.
Later on, Diaby brushed Cabella off in the box. On another day the ref might have blown for a penalty as the Frenchman didn’t get the ball while making contact with the opponent.
It’s hard to argue Montpellier didn’t deserve anything from the game but that’s the harsh reality of football at this level. They didn’t take their chances and paid for fatal mistakes at the back.
Arsenal’s performance was dogged and disciplined for most parts but it wasn’t the type that would thrill most fans or instil confidence that they have what it takes to beat the best teams in Europe. It’s early days though, so an away win is a commendable result. Nevertheless, Wenger will have to find ways of ensuring his side can hold on to the ball better when put under pressure and have certain channels of counter-attacking when the opponents are pushing so high up the pitch.
The second half stats showed the one-sided nature of that period. Montpellier moved from 42 percent possession at half time to 51 percent at full-time. They went from 6 attempts to 18 with 10 on target whereas Arsenal went from 5 to 6. So the only shot the Gunners could muster in the second half was that an attempt by Cazorla from the left side of the box. Apparently, UEFA didn’t deem Vermaelen’s header from the corner as a shot but that seems irrelevant. The hosts were by far the dominant side but the Gunners had more experience and luck.
Mannone: His positioning seemed suspect on at least two occasions (Mounier’s rushed shot and Cabella’s chip mentioned above) but his handling of the ball was impeccable. Didn’t fumble under pressure and was alert to potential danger. Distribution wasn’t very good but he had to hit many balls long under pressure.
Jenkinson: The youngster had a tough test on the flank and was engaged in a number of tackles/duels. Did a decent job of defending his zone and got into good positions in the box when dropping deep. Showed greater attacking thrust in this game and picked up an assist but his decision making and execution in attacking areas wasn’t as incisive as one would hope for. Passing was inconsistent and disappointing at times.
Mertesacker: Probably the best Arsenal defender in the game and a close contender for Arsenal’s MotM. Read the game well, was usually in the right place to intercept/block/tackle/clear danger. Was also reliable in possession. That moment against Belhanda was probably his only mistake but it could have been fatal.
Vermaelen: Conceded a penalty in an impetuous moment through an error in judgement. Wasn’t as assured on the ball as his partner. But he did have a strong defensive game just like the German.
Gibbs: Again got into many interesting attacking positions, especially in the first half, but his final ball or choice needs more work (understandably). Was asked some tough questions in defence and did well in most cases.
Apart from Vermaelen’s unforced error for the penalty, there wasn’t much to complain against the back five. When the team sits this deep for so long there will inevitably be moments where the opponents get a clear chance. The defenders did well to minimize those. The shape of the back line was superb for most of the game and often won off-sides to break threatening moments and ease the pressure.
Arteta: Kept the game ticking in the first half and a very strong defensive performance throughout the game. Was the only starter in midfield and attack who wasn’t dispossessed or had a turnover. Those who also follow cricket might recall Rahul Dravid being nicknamed ‘The Wall’ and ‘Mr. Dependable’. Arteta has probably done enough to deserve those monikers. Arsenal’s MotM in my opinion.
Diaby: Inconsistent. He had some amazing moments in the game. Played a big part in the first goal, there was that run through the middle that set up Arsenal’s only shot in the second half, and so on. But he was also found wanting more than once. Let Ait-Fana run through without tracking him or following back to clear the cut-back, and had quite a few tired moments. Surprising that he wasn’t as sharp as some of those who’d played at the weekend, especially considering he’s had a full pre-season.
Cazorla: Played a part in the build-up to both goals. Was buzzing around in the first half but had much less of an impact in the second period. Did well to hold on to the ball to offer some respite to the defence.
The midfield was dominant in the first period but they also seemed a touch casual otherwise Arsenal might have gotten more value from their possession. They worked hard to support the defence but could not create anything on the transitions in the second half as they struggled against high quality pressing.
Gervinho: Was the main creative force for the second goal and took his chance. But he went missing in patches. More is needed from a man with his pace and dribbling skills, particularly when the opponents push up to the halfway line.
Giroud: Didn’t win many physical duels and wasn’t able to work as the outlet that the team really needed. Was casual in possession at times and wasn’t able to hold the ball up. Can’t say he played well but he did provide a useful assist and showed glimpses of having a purposeful presence on the edge of the box.
Podolski: Excellent run and finish for the first goal after playing a part in the build-up. Did a respectable job of defending the left flank.
A bit more was expected from the front three when Arsenal had the bulk of possession. They did a decent job defensively but weren’t able to contribute to transitions or hold up play as effectively as needed in such a game.
Subs: Ramsey brought in much needed energy in the second half. The other two were just to waste a few seconds.
Wenger/Bould: Picked a strong team and returned with a result. Importance of an away win at the start of the group phase will become apparent, if it isn’t already, in the coming weeks. Don’t know if Bould had the right to make substitutions earlier in the game. Thought Ramsey could have come in earlier, as could AOC.Follow @goonerdesi